Celebrating Incrementalism.

FIVE THôT columnist DEREK GORDON is a marketing and sales exec with more than 20 years success in integrated marketing and sales strategy and management. He is the Chief Marketing and Sales Officer for Pathbrite.

CES—the ultimate gadget paradise—was a bust.

The Dreamliner is grounded.

NASA’s Space Shuttle program is, too.

Meanwhile, the President, Vice President and Congress are going back to work after an inspiring inaugural that inspired only momentary hope.

For those looking for the thrill and inspiration of the hot new thing, 2013, I think, will be a disappointment. To the extent we’re innovating at all, the full extent of our magical thinking is exclusively in the realm of algorithms. There will be no big bold ideas in the realm of the physical for the foreseeable future.

It's like the song "Mrs. Robinson", but instead of plaintively asking where Joe DiMaggio has gone we long for the return of Steve Jobs.

Since the introduction of the iPod and its successor products, there hasn't been an entirely new, completely magical, sweep-you-off-your-feet kind of invention. Airbus gave us a full, two-story plane. And Boeing's Dreamliner is lighter, more fuel efficient and packed with new features—and apparently comes with more than its fair share of bugs. But pass them in a 757 on your way to takeoff and they appear to be either a slightly sleeker or slightly fatter version of what you're already in. Remember the Concorde? Now that was breathtaking. And it seemed to be of a piece with the equally magical Space Shuttle.

On "Jeopardy" recently there was a contestant who is an analyst at NASA in Huntsville, Alabama. Alex Trebek asked what she was working on now that the Space Shuttle program is over. She gamely talked about the work they're doing around planning. Planning.

When I think about where I was for the first moonwalk (they wheeled a gigantic black-and-white TV into my kindergarten classroom, which in itself was startling) and what it felt like more recently to watch the still futuristic Space Shuttle come in for landings in the California desert, and compare that to listening to the NASA analyst's response to Alex's question, I can't help but feel melancholy.

One of the biggest draws at CES in recent years is the variety of automobile manufacturers scrambling to show off their latest technology. While cars are better than 20 years ago, the innovations were so incremental they kind of snuck up on us. You can buy a Ford hybrid that gets 50 miles to the gallon, including a powerful computer with SYNC technology, and that even let's you open the hatchback while waving your foot under the rear bumper, for something like $25,000. Kind of amazing when you think about where Ford cars were even 10 years ago, but still: we’re still don’t have Jetson’s-style hovercraft to commute to work in. Cars still look and feel like cars.

At the President’s inauguration yesterday, poet Richard Blanco recited movingly from his poem for the occasion about the experience of Americans rising up each morning, facing themselves in the bathroom mirror, and deciding to work another day. But while it celebrated the beauty in the unique American qualities of doggedness and determination, it also seemed to speak, if eloquently, to the plodding quality of the nation’s progress since the turn of the Millennium. 

From politics to products to poetry we've become a nation of incrementalists. In my lifetime it has been only in America that big bold leaps forward were possible (with a nod to Europe for the Concorde). We were a people who threw caution and care to the wind in order to reach for the impossible. But it would seem those natural tendencies have been sublimated somehow – a latent gene that is somehow skipping a generation.

Congressional Republicans, apparently, are trying to move from a “just say no” to a “call me maybe” strategy for working with the President, which many point to as an indication that meaningful legislation addressing the nation’s most pressing problems might be addressed in the next session. Still, big, bold investments in research and education and innovation are desperately needed, but don’t seem to be on the table in any meaningful way.

And at CES 11 different tablets were introduced to take on Apple's iPad even as Apple stock began an alarming slide because of lackluster sales for the latest iPhone, which itself is only incrementally better than the last. There are rumors Apple's working on a game-changing TV but at CES there were dozens of them, none of which lit anyone's world on fire. Everything felt just – just – incrementally better than the last thing that immediately preceded it.

In fact, the most notable thing I saw from CES was a potty-training toilet that includes a sleeve for your full-size iPad (called, predictably, the iPotty). Remember how your dad used to take the sports section to the bathroom with him? Now it's your toddler and Angry Birds.

It’s a brave new world.

Image Courtesy: Andy Dean / Shutterstock

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